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What Happened to That Old 'West Side' Gang of Ours?

October 26, 1995|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Anyone who can turn "West Side Story" into a wet noodle ought to be taken to the woodshed and spanked. Those responsible for the new touring revival that opened Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center ought to be spanked with a paddle and asked for a refund.

There are so many things wrong with this production--which also comes to Pasadena's Civic Auditorium Jan. 23-28--it makes me feel like a fool to insist that the 1957 Broadway original gave off the most powerful charge of any musical I ever saw.

Memory plays tricks on all of us. I am reassured, however, by Walter Kerr that I'm not dreaming. This is how he began his opening-night review of that unforgettable show 38 years ago: "The radioactive fallout from 'West Side Story' must still be descending on Broadway this morning."

The producers of this revival were kind enough to include his rave in their deluxe press kit. But except for Natascia A. Diaz's electric performance as Anita, the production itself turns out to be strictly bus-and-truck and offers barely a glimpse of the sharp, edgy, dangerous brilliance that once made "West Side Story" such an explosive revelation.

For those unfamiliar with "West Side Story," it is a modern variation on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and is set in Manhattan against the backdrop of a gang war motivated by racial prejudice, hatred of immigrants and personal revenge.

The young and energetic dance corps gives a hint of the original Jerome Robbins choreography--which burst with angular energy and balletic seductions--in this latest incarnation. But you have to watch Diaz, a worthy successor to Chita Rivera, to sense the truly dazzling intensity of what Robbins created. Her fiery performance doesn't so much steal the show as brace it. Unfortunately, it needs more bracing than a single player in a supporting role can provide.

The signal that the production would be a pale imitation of the real "West Side Story" came before the curtain went up: a wan rendition of Leonard Bernstein's thrilling overture. The orchestra may have been live, but it sounded dead on Tuesday night--and not just in the overture. Adding insult to injury, the tinny orchestral emissions were piped through loudspeakers--a sure sign of bait-and-switch tactics.

And the songs? Those magical, soaring, unforgettable melodies?

Murdered by H.E. Greer, a garden-variety Tony, who warbles rather than sings. Greer's vocal equipment is flat wrong for the role. There's no way to describe his delivery. Also, he's one of those can't-move-can't-act stage thesps. Every time he sings a solo he brings the show to a grinding halt. He just can't put any of them over. He doesn't get much help from his director, Alan Johnson, either.

Johnson seems to have ordered Greer to a designated spot for each of his numbers. The most obvious instance--summing up a lead performance that creates a vacuum at the center of the show--is "Something's Coming," a driving tune that begs for dynamic treatment. Greer isn't just anchored to the floor, he's bolted to it. His Tony is about as riveting as a rock.

One of the show's stimulating performances is Marcy Harriell's, as the other lead, Maria. Her unforced singing, crystal-clear soprano and natural moves work nicely in the role. But her tiny stature makes for an awkward pairing with Greer, who is twice her size.

As for Vincent Zamora's Bernardo, it's a wash. He looks right. He dances with fierce energy and lithe grace. But once he speaks, his prissy American intonation makes it impossible to take him seriously as the razor-sharp gang leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks.

*

Riff, the leader of the white Jets, was played at Tuesday's performance by Charlie Brumbly, who stepped into the role as a replacement and turned in a credible performance that gained in strength as the evening progressed.

But the Jets and Sharks could have been mistaken for each other, so small was the differentiation between them. And the real rumble took place backstage as the incessant growl and thump of scenery being moved around actually drowned out some of the show's lyrical moments.

The producers apparently took just half the advice they were given, to cast young and change nothing else. Despite its far-flung national and international destinations--the tour goes to Japan and Canada--this "West Side Story" is a poor ambassador for the Broadway original.

* "West Side Story," Orange County Performing Arts Center , 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $19-$49.50. (714) 740-2000, (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Charlie Brumbly: Riff

H.E. Greer: Tony

Diana Laurenson: Anybodys

Vincent Zamora: Bernardo

Marcy Harriell: Maria

Natascia A. Diaz: Anita

Lucio Fernandez: Chino

Bernie Passeltiner: Doc

Al Decristo: Lt. Schrank

Brent Sexton: Officer Krupke

A Barry Brown, Marvin A. Krauss, Irving Siders, The Booking Office production in association with Concert Productions, Albert Noccionlino, Pace Theatrical Group, Nick Litrenta and TV Asahiha. Based on a conception by Jerome Robbins. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Director and choreographer Alan Johnson. Scenic design Campbell Baird. Costumes Irene Sharaff. Lighting Natasha Katz. Sound Otts Munderloh.

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